Your Warm-up Doesn’t Need to Be That Complicated

I've examined just about every warm-up imaginable. Here's what you need to know about some of the popular methods out there.
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Note on source material: A couple of years back, I reviewed over 70 peer-reviewed articles on warming up for Bret Contreras. He posted my notes to his site here. If you’re interested in going through everything I did to reach the conclusions I’m going to share in this article, you can check that out.


Any discussion of warm-ups usually includes opinions on three basic topics:

  1. How to figure out the objective of the warm-up, and what qualities we’re trying to address and possibly improve.
  2. The use of static stretching versus dynamic stretching techniques.
  3. How to include methods that increase performance in the following training or competition through means such as post-activation potentiation (usually referred to as PAP).

Most recommendations on warm-ups are based on the opinions of coaches or on anecdotal evidence – both of which can be fine. But I wanted to see if there was concrete evidence in the research regarding best practices, so I would have more than my biased opinion and experience to share. That’s not to say all conclusions taken from research are clear or applicable to elite lifters and athletes; subjects are often untrained or have limited training history. And, of course, training age and history play a huge role in what warm-up practices will be most appropriate.

Rather than prescribing a specific practice, my purpose for this article is to provide a clear picture of what a useful warm-up does not look like, according to the majority of research done on the subject.  I’ll also discuss some practical takeaways based on my personal experience as a coach dealing with real, breathing human beings with varying levels of ability and training experience.  

1. The Objective Behind The Warm-Up: Maybe Less Than You Think

The “more is better” mindset is getting old. Let’s first spell out what we should be doing when we try to warm up. The consensus is usually that a warm-up should make you break a sweat. This implies that the goal is to raise core temperature, but while trying to break a sweat isn’t a bad idea, it may not necessarily be the key to better performance. In fact, research seems to indicate that focused warming of the specific muscles used in the day’s activity or training leads to better performance over just trying to raise core temperature (1).  

But why is this even worth mentioning? Mainly because most warm-up protocol recommendations focus on general activities intended to raise core temperature and neglect the muscles that will be used during that training session. These routines will include general warm-up activities such as jump rope, cycling, or rowing, followed by a sequence of movements for both upper and lower body extremities. These sequences are very comprehensive – sometimes a little too comprehensive. Of course we want an adequate warm-up, but we don’t need unnecessary nonfunctional fatigue.

If you’re a competitive powerlifter and your training calls for a focused bench press session, you don’t need to be spending excessive time in general warm-up or in doing mobility drills for your lower body. It’s not a bad idea to get some blood flow to the legs, but it shouldn’t take time away from adequately warming the musculature directly involved in the bench press. Spending unnecessary time on full body warm-ups can also be time and energy taken from training harder and longer.

Some experts will disagree with this and claim that there’s no harm in doing more warm-up, but if you spend more than half of the time you’ve allotted for training on your warm-up, there’s a problem. This is more common than people want to admit. The stronger you get, the more specific and focused overload you must add to your training. It’s hard to get the volume you need when your warm-up routine keeps getting longer.

What Do We Do With the “Core”?

It’s pretty common to see warm-up routines include warming or activation exercises for trunk musculature (also referred to as the core). The idea is that specific drills such as planks will recruit higher levels of motor unit activity, which will help you produce and transfer forces more efficiently during training. This is another widely held belief that has no observable evidence to back its validity. In fact, some studies have indicated that any comprehensive warm-up that includes taking the hip through full range of motion is sufficient to adequately activate the musculature of the trunk, or the “core” (1).

The Practical Takeaway

Honestly, there’s not much practical takeaway from this. Sorry for the diddling without a climax. Warm-up protocols will be highly dependent on ability level and training history of the athlete. The protocol is also pretty dependent on what kind of training the athlete does. A football player or Olympic weightlifter will most likely need to go through some pretty comprehensive full-body warm-ups every time they train. I have no real prescription to give you from either my experience or from the research. We haven’t yet found the magic recipe to get our bodies working like synergistic masterpieces, and I think that’s the important thing to point out. Most claims from coaches and systems are just theories on what could possibly work to improve performance. Coaches dispensing this advice should be sure not to intentionally or unintentionally dupe people into thinking we have facts as to best practices, rather than just informed theories.

The reality is that we need more research. Most methods of priming movement patterns or muscles have not been proven to benefit performance. Of course, everyone knows what’s best for their body. Duration and detail of warm-up will be largely dependent on the needs and history of a lifter. I’m not arguing that. But if you’re spending 20 minutes on a stationary bike on bench day, your time may be better spent elsewhere. If you feel the need to break a sweat before you start training, that can be done pretty quickly. But do yourself a favor and dedicate your time to warm-up protocols for the specific musculature being used that day.

2) Static Vs. Dynamic Stretching – The Heated Debate

Neither position in this “debate” is as clear as its supporters would make it seem. Let’s take a deeper look at both sides.

People who support dynamic stretching warm-ups like to point to particular studies where participants show decreased power output from static stretching routines. There are, in fact, studies that show this. I came across a few that showed static stretching protocols causing neural inhibition and an increase in muscle-tendon compliance. This led to lower power outputs from participants as compared to their previous performance before the protocol. But as with most research quoted to support a bias, the methods of many of these studies are overlooked.

Many of these studies involve methods that are very irregular and very unlikely to be used by someone willingly.  Some protocols included holding a stretch to an individual muscle group for over 10 minutes (2) – not really something everyday athletes and lifters would do.

Magnitude and duration or effect are often overlooked, as well. Studies have shown decrements in performance from only two minutes of focused static stretching (2), but most (if not all) loss in performance or power production are negated completely with a short amount of rest and/or if followed by a dynamic warm-up or sport specific movement (3)(4).

While dynamic stretching may help save the time needed to negate the slight, immediate but transient effects of static stretching, the use of static stretching before training won’t necessarily decrease performance. For elite athletes not used to any static stretching protocol, introducing it in a warm-up may in fact cause them to perform more poorly if done close enough to the activity. At the elite level, any little change has the potential to negatively affect performance for that small sub-set of people. That situation does not represent the majority.

Some experienced lifters have been doing some form of static stretching as part of their warm-up for years. To tell them to stop may also be unwise. In these cases, static stretching in any capacity can help performance for those psychologically dependent on it (4).

What Does the Stretching Really Accomplish?

I’m not planning on going too far down this rabbit hole. Proponents of dynamic warm-ups claim their protocol is superior because it involves bringing joints through a full range of motion. The continuous movement is thought to be superior in preparing the body for training and sport.

But once again, the benefit of the warm-up is due mostly to reduction in muscular stiffness by increasing heat, rather than increasing or restoring range of motion in joints from baseline (2). It seems that riding a stationary bike before a squat session has the same positive effects as an intricate dynamic stretching warm-up. Don’t get me wrong, an athlete should definitely strive to improve range of motion of joint capsules and address tissue and motor qualities, but a warm-up that addresses all of these concerns doesn’t guarantee better performance. If dynamic stretching is used to reduce muscular stiffness, there’s of course no harm in it. However, if the purpose in using it is to address mobility concerns right before training, when the training doesn’t necessarily need reserves in mobility, time may be better spent elsewhere.

Warming up with movement that imitates the training to follow can often be a more productive use of time. This will reduce stiffness and warm the musculature in the precise way it will be used during training.

Practical Takeaway – Taking A Closer Look At The Need

Instead of labeling one particular method as superior in all cases, we need to instead look at the needs for the training. What degree of positional mobility and stability is needed for the training or sport? We should all agree that there are certain standards of mobility that every healthy, functioning athlete or lifter should possess, but including excess mobility work that pushes range of motion beyond the demands required for the sport can hurt rather than help, especially in the case of highly specialized, elite athletes.

Powerlifters who possess healthy ranges of motion don’t necessarily need to spend a ton of time stretching, especially before training. If they possess slight reserves in mobility past what is required to perform the lifts, they have satisfied their needs. Any dedicated work beyond this may in fact hurt rather than help recovery, training intensity, and long-term performance. I should point out that I don’t include addressing tissue quality under the umbrella of specific mobility work.

Contrary to powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters may do well to include some focused dynamic or even static stretching as part of their warm-up routine after their muscles are warm. The mobility demands needed for their sport are far more demanding, and oftentimes stiffness from previous training dictates that they take focused effort to restore all positions in specific muscle groups. It can be more detrimental to performance to not stretch, even if it causes some fatigue, as long as it is followed by more dynamic movements mimicking the training for the day. Many high-level weightlifters do in fact hold certain static stretches before continuing their specific warm-up. To suggest these lifters should not do this is ill-advised.

Personally, I’ve put myself and my athletes through every variant of warm-up routine with and without static stretching. My observation is that if you or an athlete has a psychological dependency on performing a certain static stretch before training, there’s no good reason to remove it. At the same time, it’s helpful to look at the bigger picture. If the demands of training require great levels in mobility (even hypermobility as arguably sometimes in the case of Olympic weightlifting), time devoted to this in the warm-up is worth the inconsequential increase in fatigue.

But if you’re doing the same comprehensive warm-up for every type of training and every type of lifter or athlete, you may be doing yourself or your lifters a disservice. Especially in the case of powerlifting and lifting for general strength, my experience and my interpretation of the research has shown me that less is always more. Exhaustive pre-hab and mobility protocols are best saved for phases of training planned for recovery, rather than during heavy blocks involving increasing overload. Adding more movement prep in mobility drills and supposed PAP protocols, which we’ll go over next, oftentimes ends up causing more fatigue than necessary, and training suffers (6).

3) Post-Activation Potentiation – The Magical Unicorn

For some strange reason, every coach thinks they’re the first to stumble on the idea of post-activation potentiation or the first with the insight to truly implement it correctly. I was no exception, but my ego is outmatched only by my curiosity. And my curiosity is what set me down this path to read through as many decent studies I could on the subject and learn as much as possible.

Let’s first define this. Post-activation potentiation (often just PAP)  involves the “phosphorylation of the regulatory light chains of myosin,” which increases “rate in which cross-bridges in muscle are activated” (7). If you know how to explain this entire process in English, you should probably be writing this article instead of me. But keep it to yourself, I want to feel like the expert.

Basically, PAP involves performing an activity before a performance that will cause a positive effect on the performance. This can mean higher power output or sustained increases in strength . PAP usually causes this increase in performance through some means of contracting muscles at or “near maximal intensity” (8). The exact mechanism that causes a sufficient contraction is unclear both in theory and in practice.

The theory is that a PAP will involve a contraction that calls for a greater volume of motor unit activity that can be used in the subsequent activity. The PAP would supposedly provide a short-term memory of greater activity for the contractile properties of the muscle that could be used immediately for the task that follows (7). In other words, you’d be operating at a higher level from the stimulus used for PAP. The problem is that this theory has been confirmed in animals but not humans, according to most research, and the guidelines on how to structure it are definitely unclear (6).

The Problems

The first problem in using PAP is that both researchers and coaches are unsure as to what methods truly increase performance. Some researchers have observed elevated performance in sprinting and jumping abilities when participants used heavy barbell- or dumbbell-loaded movements that mimicked these activities (8). But this isn’t really applicable to the strength athlete whose goal it is to improve performance in the heavily loaded movements themselves. Lifting a heavy weight before you lift another heavy weight isn’t a form of PAP; it’s just warming-up. The type, intensity, and volume needed for the benefits of PAP are unclear, especially in strength sports.

In another study, researchers were trying to determine the effectiveness of using weighted bats to increase subsequent power output for baseball players. They found that swinging a weighted bat before a standard bat did in fact improve power output, but only up to a certain point. They also found that excessively weighted bats did not improve performance like bats that were just a little heavier than the standard did (9).

Although it’s a stretch to apply the baseball example to use of PAP in powerlifting or weightlifting, it brings to mind popular PAP methods often accepted in the strength community. Walkouts with supramaximal loads done before a heavy squat set or 1RM attempt is one such example, but I’ve yet to see any solid guidelines as to how heavy these should be, or how long they should be held for. Sure, you may gain a huge psychological benefit from feeling how light your squatting weight is in comparison to the walkout, but there’s no data showing what loads cause excessive fatigue and what loads could potentially improve immediate performance.

The second problem in using PAP is in how long the positive effects actually last. Studies show that any positive effect dissipates over 5-7 minutes (7). So to truly see benefits from PAP, you’d have to almost immediately follow the PAP contraction with the activity you’re looking to improve. This is not what most people who claim to use PAP do. Coaches and lifters will go through some PAP protocol but take far too long on their ramp-up sets to hit their heavy set or max attempt. By the time they attempt the lift they’ve intended to influence through PAP, the short window of time has already passed. Any benefit is probably strictly psychological at that point..  

Question of Practical Use

When discussing practical use of PAP, I’ve heard many coaches mention protocols involving weighted jumps or supramaximal loading; however, these coaches are usually making recommendations strictly from anecdotal evidence.

There’s no problem with that if the coach has taken the time to accurately measure the results of different protocols over large groups of athletes, but that is too much work for most.

If a weighted jump, walkout, or a band-assisted squat helps an athlete hit a PR, the weight, intensity, and duration of the jump, walkout, or band assisted squat needs to be recorded and then tested again. I’ve heard claims of PAP improving performance for entire training sessions or competitions. This just can’t be true. The effects are too short-lived. The coach or athlete may have found a more effective way to warm-up, but it’s probably not PAP.

My Own Practical Use

I’ve experimented with just about every type of warm-up and PAP, both for myself and my athletes.

The only method of PAP that I’ve consistently seen increase performance is a variation of French contrast method. The method includes doing a compound lift for 1-3 reps at 80-95% 1RM followed by 3-5 reps of some form of plyometric or jump. The idea is to rotate the two for multiple sets.

Although I have seen success in using this, I disagree with claims from coaches who say this will improve an athlete’s squat by 50lbs. I’ve also never seen an immediate increase in 1RM when testing a trained athlete. The improvement seems to come only through prolonged use of the method. But just like the use of other methods (such as walkouts), this is a great way to remove staleness from training and give a lifter a psychological boost for the duration of the training session or even training cycle.

The Anticlimactic Conclusion

Once again, my aim in writing this isn’t to share what I believe is the best warm-up routine, but rather to explain that most practices that are accepted as fact are still just theory. This is not unlike most topics strength coaches and trainers fight over.

I’d like to share the perfect warm-up routine with you, but to be honest, I don’t think I’ve nailed it down yet. Ideas and practices still need to be questioned and tested, and we need to move the discussion past doing what’s always been done.

References:

Sander A., Keiner M., Schlumberger A., Wirth K., Schmidtbleicher D. Effects Of Functional Exercises In The Warm-Up On Sprint Performances. J Strength Cond Res 27(4): 995–1001, 2013

Young W.B., Behm D.G. Should Static Stretching Be Used During a Warm-Up for Strength and Power Activities? Strength and Conditioning Journal Volume 24, Number 6, pages 33–37, 2002

Taylor L., Sheppard J.M., Lee H., Plummerb N. Negative Effect of Static Stretching Restored When Combined With A Sport Specific Warm-Up Component. Published Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 12 (2009) 657–661

Young W.B.The Use of Static Stretching in Warm-Up for Training and Competition. Published International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 2007;2:212-216

Brandenburg J., Pitney W.A., Luebbers P.E., Veera A., Czajka A.Time Course of Changes in Vertical Jumping Ability After Static Stretching. J Sports Physiology and Performance, 2007;2:170-181.

Tomaras E.K., MacIntosh B.R. Less is more: standard warm-up causes fatigue and less warm-up permits greater cycling power output. Published J Appl Physiol 111: 228–235, 2011.

MacIntosh B.R., Robillard M., Tomaras E.K. Should postactivation potentiation be the goal of your warm-up? Published Appl. Physiol. Nutr. Metab. 37: 546–550 (2012) doi:10.1139/H2012-016

Chattong C., Brown L.E., Coburn J.W., Noffal G.J. Effect of A Dynamic Loaded Warm-Up on Vertical Jump Performance. Published September 20010 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research  34(7), 1751-1754

DeRenne C., Ho K.W., Hetzler R.K., X D. Effects of Warm Up With Various Weighted Implements on Baseball Swing Velocity. Published J. Appl. Sports. Sci. Res.  1992, 6 (4): 11, 214-218.

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